Here at the end of the Road

The bend in the earth was actually visible from where I sat. The road carved through the houses and trees like a small avalanche of rock and broken stones on it’s way to Villa Soleada. It had always been this way, but today it was extra noticeable because I hadn’t seen it in so long. To me it had become a repetitive memory of uneven pathway beneath my feet, traveled daily for two years. Now, returning to Honduras, I could see it with perspective again. 

Sitting in the Taxi with Amilcar and Chilo, the scent of salted chicken was mouthwatering. We had ten of them piled next to Chilo in the back seat. In the school kitchens we had other food being tossed around by kitchen staff. Two bags of potatoes, 25 pounds of rice, and an assortment of chopped vegetables. When we walked into the kitchens I could taste the humidity. It tasted like home. I immediately embraced Maria Martinez, Yeni Romero, Juana Pastora, and gifted a look of surprise to little Enin, who wasn’t so little anymore. 

Chilo, Lindolfo Vasquez, and I hauled three trays of food and one long table out to the church beyond the soccer field. I couldn’t get ten feet without another hug. They came out of the woods, the doorways, and from seemingly nowhere to wrap their arms around me and exclaim their own custom abbreviations of my name. Don Jeff! Yefri! Meester Jeff! And Don Marco’s patented el famoso Yef! With each embrace came a wave of love. I’ve never gotten so many hits of serotonin in a row. And like my name from their mouths, I sang theirs like a well recited song.

Reina Mejia. Eva Lopez. Doña Nena. Leo, Toño, Deysi Vicenta – Lourdes, Lucila, Elvia Rosa. 

The sun was burning and I ushered people in through the double open doors. From outside I glanced over my shoulder into the church. Like a bad camera lens adjusting to the light, I could make out through the dark doors a sea of chairs facing forward. Unexpectedly, a green pickup arrived and parked outside the water pump. The olive green color was unmistakable. Jose Angel emerged with his salted black hair, husky smile, and disarming eyes. He gave a firm handshake and we exchanged pleasantries. Chilo arrived carrying five liters of Pepsi and the three of us went inside. 

The glare of the sun gave way to the cool shade of yellow walls. Fifty people had showed up. As expected, none of them sat in the front row. They lined the back rows and leaned against the walls, looking around expectantly. Kids ran in between them. I had instructed one little boy to keep the animals out and he sat diligently on the threshold petting a shaggy dog on the head. 

My heart was beating, but I kept my composure smooth. I greeted everyone as if I’d seen them yesterday. I shook hands with Elvia and asked her about her son. I moved over and knelt next to Paula Garcia and Nery Flores. We chatted amicably as we waited for more people to arrive. I was aware everyone’s eyes were on us, but I pretended not to notice and carried on our conversation. Eventually people began chatting amongst themselves. Norma Lizeth from Brisas arrived. Guillermina Alvarez and Olga Delcid from Monte arrived. Even Floridalma Sanchez and her husband Ruben arrived from Primero de Enero. I couldn’t have been happier to see all of them. My heart beat faster and the room filled with smiles and conversation. 

After thirty minutes of unmanaged chatter, and Chilo fiddling with the exact order of food on the table, we were ready to begin. The ceremony was scheduled for 12 o’clock. I peeked at my dusty watch. It read 12:36. I took a deep breath, looked at Chilo, and nodded. With all the authority of a soccer coach on game day, he stepped up and called the room to attention. The skinny little kid we had met all those years ago was a man now and a legitimate leader in the community. Everyone’s eyes followed his shoulders as he stood comfortably and gave a brief introduction and explanation of why we were gathered here today. A familiar realization washed over me that had been growing since day one – that I loved him like my own brother and would fight for him if he needed me. 

As Chilo asked if anyone wanted to speak first, I leaned my iPhone against a Pepsi bottle and recorded. The video shows silence until Digna stood up in the back and called everyone to prayer. The room rose to their feet and listened to Digna who thanked god with her hands raised. When she finished everyone applauded and sat down. Chilo thanked Digna and spoke again:

“Our visit will have to be a little short today because there is work to do. If we could, we would give another ten years to you, but unfortunately we have to continue on our own. We have to work to survive on our own. Everything has been prepared – prepared with much love for everyone here – and we hope to God in the future we will have something equal to or better to offer you, but for now I’ll give it to him to say a few words…” 

As if on cue, I saw him gesture my way and step aside from the floor. It was my turn to speak. 

“I do have a few words to say,” I started, “but I also want to hear some from you all.”

“He’s going to cry!” Mina yelled, and we all laughed. 

Nothing that day was scripted. I had no idea what I was going to say or what words the rest of La Ceiba and the clients had to share. I felt nervous, tender, and light headed. I stood in front of everyone with my hands on my hips, and hoped what came out would do justice to the droves of articulate students who had come before me. This is what I said:

“First, I want to thank all of you who I haven’t seen in a long time. Obviously, the last time I was here I was working for Ceiba, and now Ceiba doesn’t exist. It’s a shame, in my opinion, but I don’t want to talk specifically about us and I, but about you guys. You guys not only changed my life, but the life of my friends at university and even my family. You had an influence on me for which I have no words, because as you all know I can’t speak Spanish very well. [we laugh]

So let me talk about the people here; those of you who were here when we started, with the first loans in Siete de Abril, who came here to Villa Soleada; to those of you from the area in Monte de los Olivos, from Brisas. You fought to work with us. It was an honor. It was a pleasure. The people in the US who worked with La Ceiba – who helped me give loans and who helped me to come here – send their thanks. I have a few of those messages here today that I want to share with you. 

Before that, though, I want to say, that working with you was the best experience of my life. I will never forget any of you. I can’t, and I don’t want to. Every meeting we had in your homes over coffee, pepsi, or maybe only water – every conversation changed me for the better. We know that life here is harder than life in the US. That’s no secret. You all have lived through many difficult moments. Your smiles to me are a blessing. It shows me that in hard times, in dark times, there is light. You are that light. It was a pleasure to get to know you. Thank you.”

People applauded. Norma Brizuela had arrived during my speech and taken a seat at the front. I continued, telling her and everyone else to pay attention to my small laptop, propped up on a chair. The picture was small, but the sound was big since we plugged it into the church speakers. Ben Saunders spoke to the group from a cell phone video, telling them how all these years later he still felt their influence upon him. Laura Meinzen-Dick gave a heartfelt message in Spanish thanking everyone. And Santi Sueiro, who got a rousing applause, spoke eloquently as always. I could see his words connecting with people as they smiled involuntarily. Finally, I read Tabi Faramarzi and Dr. Humphrey’s statements aloud. As in my speech, however, the moment really belonged to the clients of La Ceiba. Norma Lizeth stood up first. 

Without shame, she told the group how in need of funding her family was back in the day; how valuable La Ceiba loans had been to building her home, and how thankful she was to me and everyone else. Next was Digna Edith, who recounted the importance of giving and the grace of God; how La Ceiba had emulated those behaviors, and done good for the community. I stood with my hands crossed at my belt, wrapped in a surreal feeling, and listening with a gentle smile. 

Selma Santos stood. She wore a white dress, a yellow shirt, and a black head band. The tears in her eyes did not surprise me, but her address to the room did. It lasted only six sentences. In the most earnest voice, Selma told the room she remembered her time with La Ceiba – she cherished her moments with Ben, Santi, me, and our families – that she would never forget us, and that we would always be in her heart. With a curt nod, she took her seat, and we all applauded. 

Although Selma’s directness caused my heart to ache with a bitter kind of happiness, it wasn’t until Reina Reyes stood that it broke entirely. Those of us who know her need no introduction. For those that don’t, adjectives like genuine, humble, and joyful only serve to scratch the surface. We stood shoulder to shoulder, she, amongst the crowd of the community, and I, a visitor and guest. When she spoke it was rhythmic and easy. She told us about how no one would take a chance on someone like her. With her hands she motioned back to the first years of La Ceiba and what it had been like for her family. She talked about the way we treated her with dignity and respect. She talked about what would be missing from the future, and how sorry she was to see it go. When she mentioned the meetings between her and I, we both began to cry. Me, instinctively holding it in, and her, gulping down the sorrow with an all too familiar practice of good bye. She thanked us and returned to her seat in a soft hum of applause. 

Norma Brizuela stood. As she spoke, lengthily and meandering, the corners of all our mouths started to curl upwards until ten minutes in we were all grinning widely. She spoke of what was good and what was bad in life; what we should and should not do, and what good La Ceiba had brought and what bad we had struggled to fix. We gave her an applause as she sat down, and then Elvia Rosa stood and gave us a simple thank you and wished us well. In the resounding silence that followed, I invited everyone to eat. 

The only regret I had was that I used my phone for pictures and did not record their words. Everything we did, including this final ceremony, had involved client input. The date, the time, and the structure of each interaction was dictated by clients. Why it escaped me to record their final say I do not know, but I feel lucky to have been there to receive what felt like ten years of emotion condensed into the span of a single hour. We may have always told ourselves that we were small and un-impactful, but what I saw that day, perhaps for the very first time, was that in a community already small, we were big and remarkably impactful. 

I served everyone chicken with the ladies from Brisas and took the last plate before striking up more conversations. The day wound down and people took their leave. One by one I gave hugs and returned smiles. People ate and laughed and took some food for the road. By the time it was over only a few remained. Everyone swept, stacked chairs, or reorganized furniture. Selma and Reina gave me warm hugs. Elvia gave me a firm handshake. Helen thanked us for being so gracious. Gloria giggled and waved goodbye.

At last, the day was done and everyone returned to their homes. Chilo and I walked lazily back to the front gates. The field was quiet as the sun set over the final La Ceiba trip. Before I climbed into the busito, I thanked him for all that he’d done. He nodded and told me the meeting had been a success. With a sturdy expression, he said goodbye and left. His look held in it the distilled nature of Villa  – it said, you will come and go and we will continue on. As we pulled through the houses and onto the road, I couldn’t help but feel a heavy relief. We had been, at the very least, a very positive chapter in this vibrant story of life and toil, here at the end of the road, in Villa Soleada. 

By Jeff Paddock

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